Inmate’s death shows need for new agreement being implemented to prevent such incidents
By Matthew Spina
The Buffalo News
August 3, 2010
County jails across New York have recorded five inmate suicides this year. Three of those five occurred in the Erie County Holding Center, according to the state Commission of Correction.
The Holding Center now has the highest suicide rate of any county jail in the state, the commission said Monday. The jail in downtown Buffalo had not registered three suicides in a year in at least 25 years. But that changed Saturday, when Keith John hanged himself using a bed sheet tied to his cell’s bars. John is the first Holding Center inmate to take his life since Erie County officials signed a historic agreement with the U. S. Justice Department to better prevent jail suicides.
Lawyers for the county and the Justice Department in June signed a plan to install a series of measures to better screen suicidal inmates, address their mental health needs, formalize staff training and adjust cell fixtures so they cannot anchor a noose.
No one expected the improvements, still being implemented, to eradicate Holding Center suicides. But based on the comments of county jail officials during a news conference Sunday, they are following the procedures instituted so far.
For example, they said a medical professional, not a booking deputy, asked John the series of questions designed to assess his risk for suicide. Jail personnel learned John was coming off a drinking binge, so he was initially placed Wednesday in a detoxification unit that carries a high level of supervision.
However, John was moved out of that unit within a few days—despite his history of mental health treatment. The sheriff’s officials who spoke Sunday said they could not publicly discuss the history, but other sources familiar with jail management said a history of mental health treatment is a serious red flag.
John was placed in the older section of the jail, where barred cells are arranged in long rows. Suicides are less common in those cells because other inmates can see suicide attempts unfold and alert deputies. The county has been ordered to adjust the fixtures in the newer 1980s jail addition, where cells are really three walls and a door, with inmates allowed greater privacy.
John’s risk of suicide was rated at 4. Inmates who score 8 or more — answering yes to at least eight questions or showing other signs they are at risk — are to be watched constantly.
However, inmates given a rating as low a 1 have committed suicide in the jail. Jeremy Kiekbush, who attempted “suicide by cop” the day before he hanged himself in the jail March 3, had rated only a 1.
John was being held on accusations that he violated two orders of protection. He was charged with a probation violation, criminal contempt and criminal mischief.
In reporting the death to the state Commission of Correction, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s jail officials cited John’s need for detoxification as perhaps a contributing factor in his suicide. They also said they learned later that he had expected an outside visitor, but the visit never occurred. Researchers have found that isolation contributes to an inmate’s sense of desperation.
The Commission of Correction, which regulates jails in New York, will begin a formal investigation into John’s death and assess whether jail personnel followed procedures, as Undersheriff Mark Wipperman on Sunday insisted they did. Those state reports usually take several months to complete.
Also, under a new process mandated by the Justice Department settlement, the jail’s top medical and mental health officials must convene within 30 days to review the case and develop new procedures as necessary.
County officials say they do examine their handling of inmates who commit suicide. But the Justice Department, in court papers, said it could not confirm that internal examinations occurred in all cases.
The Holding Center’s suicide rate has increased this year while jail suicides nationwide are falling, according to a study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. The study found a dramatic decrease in the rate of suicide in county jails over 20 years.
The center found that 67 percent of jail suicide victims were white, 97 percent were male, and 93 percent hanged themselves. John, too, was a white male.
The study’s coordinator, Lindsay M. Hayes, served as a consultant to the Justice Department in its lawsuit against Erie County. Hayes found that the Holding Center suicide rate was almost five times the national average for county jails. While Erie County officials disputed the calculation, the state Commission of Correction agrees that the Holding Center has distinguished itself among New York’s county jails.
Since the start of 2005, there have been 43 suicides in upstate and Long Island jails, with Erie County accounting for nine of them, said commission spokesman John M. Caher. While Erie County accounted for 7.5 percent of the daily population over the past five and one-half years, it reported 21 percent of the suicides. “With four suicides in recent months, the Erie County Holding Center has the highest suicide rate of any facility in the state,” he said.